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A Revolution in Transportation

A Revolution in Transportation


Early Hopes . In 1808 Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin called for a federally supported national transportation system. He suggested that roads, turnpikes, and canals be constructed to bring the new nation together, but Gallatins plan, however appealing, never materialized. The questionable constitutionality of a federally funded transportation program; the constant bickering among cities, states, and regions; and the rapid changes in technology and population densities rendered such ideas impossible to implement. During the antebellum period a national transportation structure emerged, and by 1860 almost anyone living east of Texas could reach New York City within six days.

Steamboats . The eastern half of North America is blessed with many navigable bodies of water. The Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio River systems and the Great Lakes make for comparatively easy internal travel and shipping. In 1807 Robert Fultons steamboat, the Clermonty chugged up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. Soon, steam-powered river craft were carrying people and goods along many of the nations arteries. In 1812 a steamboat went from Pittsburgh to New Orleans; even more important, in 1815 a steamboat left New Orleans and ascended the Mississippi River to Louisville, Kentucky. The success of these new steam-powered crafts led to the disappearance of the slower keelboats, but flatboats, another familiar form of river transportation, continued to carry people and goods down river. The Ohio and Mississippi River systems bore seventy steamboats by the early 1820s and five hundred by 1840.

Roads. These new boats allowed Americans in the East and West to trade regionally, but the Appalachian Mountains remained a barrier to a nationwide transportation structure. Rutted, often muddy, roads through mountain passes were an early answer to the problem. In 1802 the federal government authorized the construction of the paved National Road, which reached from the Potomac River to the Ohio River.

Canals. The answer to east-west transportation came not with roads but instead through the development of a system of canals that captured the imagination of thousands of entrepreneurs and lawmakers. Private and public capital financed the building of smaller canals in the first two decades of the 1800s. However, 1825 marked a new age in transportation and commerce. That year the Erie Canalconnecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River (and, thus, to New York City)was finally completed. New Yorks accomplishment became a huge and immediate success for the state. For two decades the United States went through a canal-mania. State governments

rushed to connect cities and regions with rivers and lakes. No other man-made American water channel ever witnessed the transportation of goods that travelled the Erie Canal, which carried more than one million tons of cargo in 1845, but other canals appeared throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Railroads. Nevertheless, the age of canals turned out to be short-lived when many Americans realized that railroads could better accomplish their goal of connecting the East with the West. In the 1830s most railroads simply joined major waterways, demonstrating again the power of water transportation. However, investors with large government subsidies in hand soon began to develop new routes known as trunk lines. As early as 1827 Baltimore businessmen, who feared that trade in their city would be damaged by the success of the Erie Canal, proposed laying tracks westward to connect their port with the Ohio River. Because of various delays, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was not finished until 1852, but railroad companies were hard at work constructing other trunk lines. By 1853 seven routes connected the eastern seaboard with the interior West. Private companies and state governments erected local and state rail lines within the West, so when the trunk lines reached over the mountains, the United States had its first integrated railroad system. Although no railroad connected the East Coast with California until 1869, by 1860 the United States possessed thirty thousand miles of rails, most of it east of the Missouri River.

Samuel Clemens Reports the Dangers of River Travel

The steamboats that plied the western rivers were crucial to the hauling of goods and people throughout the region from the 1820s onward, but river travel could be dangerous before the Civil War. Explosions, accidents, and dangers from the rivers themselves were relatively common. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, recalled the hazards faced by early Mississippi River steamboat pilots. Fully to realise the marvellous precision required in laying the great steamer in her marks in that murky waste of water, one should know that not only must she pick her intricate way through snags and blind reefs, and then shave the head of the island so closely as to brush the overhanging foliage with her stern, but at one place she must pass almost within arms reach of a sunken and invisible wreck that would snatch the hull timbers from under her if she should strike it, and destroy a quarter of a million dollars worth of steam-boat and cargo in five minutes, and maybe a hundred and fifty human lives into the bargain.

Source: Mark Twain, Old Times on the Mississippi (Toronto: Belford, 1876).

Emergence of a National System. Since different and competing companies funded these railroads, not all the tracks were of the same width, and few tracks crossed major rivers due to the high cost of bridge construction. Moreover, the railroads were not evenly distributed within the United States. Most joined the Northeast with the Midwest while the South rapidly fell behind because planters involved in the cotton-based economy still favored rivers over railroads. So, despite the phenomenal success and eventual dominance of the railroad, the waterborne traffic of steamboats and canals continued to play a crucial economic role in the antebellum period. Whether by land, water, or rail, Americans and their goods moved farther and faster in 1860 than they had half a century before.


D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 18001867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993);

George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution: 18151860 (White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1951).

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